October 2005 Issue
The 'Secrets' of Amish Cooking
A visit to Amish country wouldn't be complete without a traditional, down-home meal. Discover a few of the ingredients and techniques that make their food so popular, as well as some of the places where the Amish shop.
Autumn Bounty: Shop Like the Amish
Pick your own apples and pumpkins at Moreland Fruit Farms near Wooster, or at Scenic Ridge Orchard near Ashland. Stock up on staples at Ashery Country Store, one of the bulk-food stores the Amish frequent for everything from spices and flour to enormous jars of Marshmallow Creme. Check out Lehmanâ€™s Hardware in Kidron for all the utensils and gadgets you need for grating, grinding, drying and canning. Finally, fill your car with produce from the Mount Hope Produce Auction, a fascinating event where youâ€™ll find both Amish and non-Amish growers.
Moreland Fruit Farm, 1558 W. Moreland Rd. (halfway between Wooster and Shreve), 330/264-8735, open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Scenic Ridge Fruit Farm, St. Rte. 89 (just south of U.S. Rte. 30) between Wooster and Ashland, 419/368-3353. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 1-5.
Ashery Country Store (bulk foods), 8922 St. Rte. 241, 2.5 miles north of Mt. Hope, 330/674-7661. Open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Farmers Produce Auction, St. Rte. 241, near Cty. Rd. 235, Mt. Hope, 330/674-7661. Seasonal hours, limited auction dates in October and November, ending around Thanksgiving. Call for days and times. This is a 24,000-square-foot auction space where Amish wagons bearing produce line up with big pickup trucks from area orchards and farms at drive-through platforms where everything is sold, in season, from berries in May to apples and pumpkins in November. Buyers come from a five-state area, mostly operators of farmers market and grocery chains, buying big lots. But private buyers can purchase small quantities, too, and itâ€™s fun to watch the action in this fast-paced rural drama where the cast of characters is about evenly split between Amish and non-Amish growers.
Lehmanâ€™s Hardware & Appliances Inc., 1 Lehman Circle, Kidron, 330/857-5757. www.lehmans.com . Open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Thur. 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. Everything you need for Amish cooking, baking and canning, including food strainers, grinders and dehydrators, cookware and more.
The Amish exert a powerful magnetic force, drawing us in. Everything about them delights us. The well-tended farms. The sweet-looking children in their old-fashioned clothes. But it's the food that keeps us coming back for more.
No matter how many "Amish-cooking" restaurants pop up, the demand far exceeds the supply. If you're in Amish country on a Saturday, you'll be amazed at the long lunch lines at all the restaurant parking lots. The scene repeats itself in town after town, from Berlin to Baltic, from Shreve to Sugarcreek: hundreds of hungry patrons lining up like kids in a school cafeteria. They shuffle their feet, listening to their stomachs growl, while they wait for their turn at a table.
It makes you wonder: What's so special about Amish cooking that we're willing to stand in line to get it? And that makes you wonder: Can we non-Amish learn to do this at home?
I've lived on the edge of Amish Country all my life. Near the Geauga County Amish for a while; closer to Holmes County Amish these days. And the mystique of "Amish cooking" has always puzzled me. It's just "grandma-style" cooking, I figured. But now I see the more subtle allure: Amish cooking is a handy metaphor for everything we miss in our modern, busy lives, and it gives us a taste of something we suspect was a lot better a generation or two ago.
This is the ultimate comfort food. It tastes good - and makes you feel good, too. What could be better than that?
Searching for the secrets of Amish cooking, I consulted the experts, Betty Yoder and Dora Schlabach, two Amish housewives who cook for tourists who visit their homes.
Both ladies giggle at the word, "secrets."
"No secrets," according to Betty Yoder.
"Nothing special," Dora Schlabach agrees.
Humility is a virtue that Amish people live by - even when it comes to cooking. So you'll never find an Amish woman bragging about, say, the silkiness of her gravies or the flakiness of her piecrusts, even if she does hear heaps of praise from the non-Amish guests who dine at her table.
Yet, I found there are some secrets. For one, there's the startling ingredient that Amish ladies tuck into their mashed potatoes to give them a yummy softness - no matter how long they sit on the dinner table, or how often they're warmed over.
There's also the weird additive they sprinkle onto their yeast dough to make their cinnamon rolls a work of art. And, most surprising to me, the Amish cooks' universal reliance on Velveeta, which enjoys a starring role in every soup and casserole. How shocking - in a region renowned for its Amish-made Swiss cheese - that the ladies prefer to cook with a highly processed, bright-orange brick that comes in a box.
"It just melts better, that's all," says Betty Yoder.
Yoder began cooking for LaVonne DeBois and her company, Amish Culture Tours, two years ago. Dora Schlabach started a little later. Now, both do several meals each week for small tour groups that LaVonne brings to their homes. Betty Yoder can serve as many as 60 people at a time; she sets up long tables that fill the kitchen and parlor. Dora Schlabach prefers to keep her groups small, generally 10 to 12. "Bigger crowds make me nervous," she says.
Both women have lovely homes. Yoder's, located just south of Charm, is a sweet little white-frame house caught in the curve of the road, so you come upon it as a surprise. The front yard is all garden - a riot of color and produce. The back is all pasture - green fields dotted with black and white Holsteins. From the tables in the parlor, you can watch the cows eat their dinner while you enjoy yours.
We tend to think that Amish houses all look alike, but that's not true. Dora Schlabach's large farmhouse sits well off the road at the end of a long dirt lane near Mount Hope. The barns sparkle with fresh paint, and the gardens are abundant with flowers and produce. Her kitchen boasts gorgeous new, custom-made oak cupboards, paid for with the money she makes cooking for the Amish Culture tours.
She's a handsome woman, with lovely posture and an engaging laugh, although she says she is terribly nervous on the days she serves dinners, and painfully shy around strangers. LaVonne helps her get over her stage fright when there's a whole kitchen full of people she doesn't know.
Talking to a stranger, one-on-one, she's more relaxed. She even offers a small confession.
"I never liked to cook," she says with a grin. As a child, she'd hide when it came time for cooking or canning or doing dishes. She preferred working in the barn with the boys instead.
But now she's well known for her cooking. She even wrote a cookbook, Country Blessings, which contains 340 pages of recipes (her own, as well as her friends' and neighbors'; for ordering information, call 330/674-4754). The book has a brief section of home remedies and household hints, including advice on how to keep your feet warm when traveling by buggy on cold winter days: You line the floorboards with Styrofoam and fill all the available leg room with plastic milk jugs full of hot water.
I keep a copy of Dora's cookbook in my kitchen. I love the cheeseburger soup, of all things, even though it is made with Velveeta. Some "recipes" are puzzling in their brevity, such as the one for roast turkey that lists only four ingredients - 1 turkey, 1 oven-roasting bag, 6 cans mushroom soup, 6 cans Coke - and precious little help in the way of instructions.
Both women rely on their husbands and children for help with the dinners. The men wrestle the oversized tables into place and help peel a mountain of potatoes. Children help with the serving, even the littlest ones, who may distribute napkins or bring in baskets of breads and rolls. Sometimes the children entertain after the meal by singing hymns.
When LaVonne's van pulls up and the guests climb out, they often seem a little shy; this is a strange new world they're entering, after all, and a far more intimate encounter than the usual excursion in which they have an "Amish-style" dinner in a public restaurant. Betty Yoder says she encourages her whole family to gather at the door to greet the guests and make them feel welcome.
The aromas add to the warmth of the greeting -that heady smell of real country cooking that makes grownups go weak in the knees. Guests tend to stop in their tracks, sniffing the air. "Is that fried chicken I smell?" Sure, fresh chicken, coated with homemade breading, and cooked just right in a combination of Crisco and butter so it's crispy-crusted, but never greasy. Other scents assert themselves: Roast beef, chicken-flavored noodles, real mashed potatoes with gravy or browned butter drizzled on top, yeasty home-made bread and flakey-crusted apple pie, fresh from the oven.
The visitors lose their shyness. It's impossible to be standoffish in a kitchen that smells this good. Usually, the Amish family will bow their heads for silent prayer at the start of the meal. Conversations may be strained at first, then a kind of natural ebb and flow occurs, with the sharing of food. People begin to talk to one another. And learn.
It might seem odd that Amish women would actually open their homes to non-Amish guests, yet it's been a perfectly natural fit, says tour director DeBois. She is a Berlin native who's known the two women for years. She's been friendly with their families since the 1980s when she began offering chauffeur services to a few Amish families. "You really get to know people when you spend hours and hours with them in a car."
DeBois says she and her Amish friends share all the usual high points and low points of life: the marriages, births of babies, deaths of loved ones. She says she prayed about her decision to start offering the meals in Amish homes and decided it was a good thing, both for the Amish families involved and for her business.
DeBois is protective of her Amish friends. She plans her tours so that the most common theological and social questions are dealt with on the bus, before the group arrives at the women's homes. She likes to get all the mundane issues out of the way - the usual queries about "why don't you use electricity?" or the question that's asked more as a challenge, as in: "How come you won't drive a car, but you're willing to ride in one?"
During the meal, she'll run interference if anybody gets out of line, with questions that are insensitive or too personal. But it rarely happens.
"If I've done my job right, the people will be natural with each other," says DeBois. "They won't be hung up on the â€˜differences,' the plain-dress-versus-modern-clothes issue, or the TV-or-no-TV issue. Their conversations will be more meaningful and more satisfying. Sometimes people just click. They exchange names and addresses at the end of the evening. They keep in touch."
What may have begun as idle curiosity - or simply a hankering for Amish chicken - can lead to so much more. "Lasting friendships," says DeBois, "sometimes begin with these dinners."
Amish cooks share favorite recipes that include some surprising techniques and ingredients.
Perfect Mashed Potatoes Every Time
Cream cheese is the secret ingredient
(Serves 20, but it can be divided in half)
6 quarts potatoes (about 10 pounds), peeled and cut up
4 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon salt
Milk, as needed
Cook potatoes until soft. Mash fine with potato masher. Add cream cheese. Stir well. Add butter and sour cream. Stir well. Add salt and milk as needed for desired consistency.
Easy Never-Fail Noodles
Courtesy Dora Schlabach
No boiling of the noodles is the trick
Brown 2 tablespoons butter. Add 3/4 quart of chicken broth, 3/4 cup water, 2 tablespoons chicken base with parsley (sold in bulk at the Ashery [see page 86] and other bulk-food stores, or in small quantities, substitute the Miller brand soup base, found in most supermarkets), 1/2 can cream of chicken soup and salt to taste. Bring to a full boil. Add one 8-ounce bag Inn Maid (or your favorite brand) noodles. Turn off heat. Cover and let sit 45â€“60 minutes, until noodles are tender.
Rich Sweet Cinnamon Rolls
Instant pudding mix makes them moist
Recipe by Linda Mast, from Dora Schlabach's Country Blessings
Makes 16â€“20 large cinnamon rolls
2 packages yeast
1/2 cup warm water
8 cups flour
1 package instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups warm milk
2 eggs lightly beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup raisins
1 cup finely chopped nuts
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tablespoon milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add next seven ingredients. Mix well and place in greased bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled. Punch down. Turn onto lightly floured board. Divide in half. Roll out and brush with butter, spread filling over dough. Roll up. Slice into one-inch-thick rounds, and place onto large cookie pans with sides. Let rise until double. Bake for 25â€“30 minutes. Remove from pans and cool. Drizzle glaze over rolls.
In August, a crew of mostly Amish workers spent a week putting a new roof on my old house in Loudonville. At lunchtime, the "English" guys (as the Amish refer to non-Amish) drove to McDonalds. But the Amish workers retired to my parlor. There, they plugged in the microwave they carry with them on every job, as it's okay to use electricity if it's in somebody else's home. They sat in a circle around it - like kids at a campfire - and warmed up their lunches. What were they warming? Mom's fried chicken? Mashed potatoes, with homemade gravy? "Nah," said the foreman, when I asked. "We get tired of that stuff. It's hotdogs from the IGA."